A Focus On Nature

Advent Calendar

10th – Starling

Championed by Ian Barthorpe

Sturnus vulgaris

Let me explain why the familiar, but often misunderstood, starling is rated number one in my list of favourite birds.

At first glance starlings may be medium-small black birds, but that doesn’t do them justice as their iridescent plumage sparkles blue, purple, bronze and green in the sun, with pale spotting adding a further touch of glamour.

These are highly gregarious birds, breeding semi colonially wherever they can find a suitable nesting hole: beneath the tiles of urban roofs, in cavities in old trees or old woodpecker holes, or in nestboxes provided by welcoming gardeners.

They should be valued as a gardener’s friend since leatherjackets, the lawn-destroying larvae of daddy longlegs, are a favourite food.

They run with a half comical upright gait, invariably squabbling even when there is plentiful food.

It’s this squabbling chatter that endears them to me, yet frustrates other avid garden bird feeders who complain that they steal the food put out for their beloved blue tits or robins, but it’s starlings that bring a welcome touch of comedy to the garden.

As with all aspects of their behaviour, starlings enjoy a communal bath, with some benefitting from the continual splashing by enjoying a welcome shower instead. Watch this behaviour on a sunny day and tiny rainbows dance among the birds as if acknowledging the beauty of the starlings.

This is one of the few animal species for which the collective noun is widely used, and it’s also a perfect adjective to describe the spectacular pre-roost flocks: a murmuration.

The biggest roosts are often in reedbeds, but urban areas, industrial sites and woodlands can also be popular as all have a warmer microclimate than the surrounding countryside.

The largest and best known sites, with flocks numbering upto one million birds, include the Somerset Levels (famously used in recent TV commercials), Gretna and Brighton Pier. Millions also regular gather in the skies above Rome.

Starlings are partial migrants so while some of our breeders winter in Spain, millions more migrate here every winter to escape the bitter cold winters of northern Europe. Some even arrive from as far east at northwest Russia.

The smoke-like clouds of starlings move as one, painting incredible temporary patterns across the skies for up to an hour before dusk.

Inevetiably they attract predators – sparrowhawks, peregrines, harriers – intent on a last meal before bed, and it’s then that the flocks take on a life of their own as the starlings wheel in ever tighter flocks to disrupt the predators’ attempts to catch them.

As you watch, you’ll hear the whoosh of thousands of wings beating as one, and a constant chatter as more and more birds arrive.

Then, on some unseen cue, the flocks desend to roost, like water flowing down the plughole. The chattering, or murmuring, continues for many more minutes, then all falls silent.

But for how long will we be able to enjoy this spectacle? Starling populations are declining throughout Europe, victims of changes in land use that have reduced the availability of food and nest sites. While still common, we’ve lost more than half of our starlings in the last 40 years, as revealed by surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey and RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch.

I, for one, hope that we can reverse the fortunes of this amazing bird and continue to marvel at it’s antics for many years to come.


Ian BarthorpeIan Barthorpe is a lifelong birdwatcher and naturalist. He has worked for the RSPB since 1999, as has been Marketing and Publicity Officer at RSPB Minsmere since 2003. He writes the Minsmere blogs on the RSPB website – http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/placestovisit/minsmere/b/minsmere-blog/default.aspx. He has also led wildlife tours and walks in France and Poland.